Her name was Julie Ruzinski, and in 1976 she befriended me and Mrs. Chatterbox while we were backpacking through Greece. Julie, a blond blue-eyed Aussie, was enjoying a last fling before settling down and marrying. Her fiancé was waiting for her in Melbourne. It seemed odd that she was traveling alone, but Mrs. C. and I didn’t pry.
In addition to speaking with a delightful Australian accent, Julie also spoke fluent Italian. When the time came to move on to Italy the three of us joined ranks and boarded a rusty tramp steamer for Brindisi. Julie wasn’t backpacking like we were; she was weighed down by a regular suitcase and a larger one she struggled to carry—this in the days before luggage came with wheels. Prompted by an outdated sense of chivalry, I reached for the big suitcase and was soon lugging it from city to city. It couldn’t have been heavier had it been filled with rocks.
I remember lugging that suitcase onto train platforms and hoisting it onto luggage racks on stops from Brindisi to Rome. One day in the Eternal City the three of us paused near the Spanish Steps and ordered a bottle of Chianti at a trattoria. Somewhere around the second bottle my tongue loosened up and I asked, “So Julie, what have you got in that suitcase? Bricks?”
Her face turned crimson and she looked away. Obviously, she didn’t want to answer. I felt bad for asking and changed the subject. That evening after dinner, we were relaxing in our cramped pensione when someone knocked on our door. It was Julie from down the hall. “Come over to my room,” she said. “I have something I want to show you.”
We trooped down the hall to her room. I noticed the big suitcase on her sagging bed.
“I have a story to tell,” Julie said, her voice a soft whisper.
There were no chairs so we sat on the bed, surrounding the suitcase.
“With a name like Ruzinski it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my father is Polish. Five years before I was born he was branded a dissident by the Communist government and thrown into prison where he remained for four years. Each day he awoke thinking it was his last. One day he was dragged to the prison administrator’s office and told he would be released from prison on condition that he leave Poland and never return. If he did so, he would face a firing squad.”
At this point in her story Julie reached over and ran her fingers over the suitcase’s smooth exterior.
“My father had been in prison four years and hadn’t been permitted to send word of his whereabouts to friends or family. Now he was escorted to a ship bound for Rotterdam without even being able to say goodbye. My father traveled to Australia, married my mother and built a successful business. For twenty years he has tried to contact his destitute parents and cousins, but his letters are intercepted along with the money he sends. As you can imagine, life in Poland right now is extremely difficult. Six months ago, after years of failure and frustration at not being able to help his family, Dad received word from the Polish government. One Ruzinski, anyone except Dad, would be permitted to enter Poland, alone, for a brief visit. I volunteered to go, but was informed I could not bring money into the country.”
She unlatched the suitcase and opened the lid.
When the shock wore off I nearly burst out laughing; I couldn’t believe what I saw. The suitcase was stuffed with…tampons. My initial reaction was, Holy shit! This girl must have one hell of a period. The suitcase was also stuffed with ballpoint pens. It was one of the few times in my life when I was speechless.
Mrs. Chatterbox said, “Julie, I don’t understand. Why tampons? Why ballpoint pens? Does your family need these?”
Julie explained, “In four days my one week visa will admit me into Poland. I’ll be checked to see if I’m carrying a large sum of money; if I am it will be confiscated. That’s why I’m bringing this suitcase. These items are not considered contraband but they are worth their weight in gold on the Polish black market. This suitcase will feed our family for a year.”
A few days later we exchanged addresses and said goodbye to Julie at the Roma Termini, where she caught a train to Warsaw. We were sad to see her go, having quickly grown fond of her. Mrs. C. wrote her after we returned to the States. We wondered if she’d made it home safely, married her fiancé.
We never heard from her again.